Overcoming Cultural Differences in Japanese-American Offices (Part 2)


In my previous post, we began exploring some cultural differences between Japanese and Americans that tend to cause tension in the workplace.

This week, let's dive a little deeper and look at some expectations Americans can have in a Japanese-dominated place of work and how to handle cultural differences with tact and understanding.

The Japanese Decision-Making Process is Different

Often, even when you're in a meeting with a Japanese decision maker, he won't make a choice on the spot. You may be speaking to the CEO or a director who has the authority to weigh the options and make a choice right away, but he will refrain from saying 'yes' or 'no' immediately.

This is common practice in Japanese business. Americans can become frustrated, because our culture honors quick thinking and lightning-fast decision-making. In fact, it's a common philosophy in American business to "find the decision-maker" to get to a 'yes' as quickly as possible. At the very least, you'll know who that person is so you can continue working together rather than spending time with someone who has no authority.

Japanese business operates on a consensus-based decision making process. Even if the CEO you spoke with does have the authority to make a decision on the spot, he will likely not give you an answer right away.

Instead, he'll go back and discuss with teams that are involved with this project or deal. Through the decision-making process, the Japanese CEO will be aligning his internal teams. Because of this, it may make the process feel longer, but once all parties are in agreement the process often moves faster and quicker because the consensus has been made.

The Difference in Meetings

Group decision-making is standard for Japanese business, and it can be confusing for Americans. Most notably, you'll see this cultural difference arise in the meeting room.

In American business, meetings are restricted to the people who have authority on the topic. The only people present in the room and active in the discussion are those who are directly responsible for the project. In Japan, on the other hand, they'll bring every member of the team: even the junior person. Almost everyone who is part of the project will come to the table.

This often means that it will take longer to make decisions, but that is fine in the Japanese culture: in general, a good, well thought-through decision is valued much more highly than a quick one.

Japanese Have Different Leadership Ideals

In the US, quick decisions demonstrate that you're a good leader and a strong leader. Americans want someone who is energetic, charismatic and action-oriented.

Japanese have different ideals of leadership. In general, thoughtful, calm people are considered more appealing. They represent wisdom and quiet strength. You can see these differences in almost every aspect of the respective leaders: their body language, their intonation and their thought process reveal the differences in their priorities.

If we look back at the long Japanese history, we can possibly understand why measured and thorough decision-making is considered so valuable. For hundreds of years, Japan was completely closed to the Western world for trade; the country's leadership has often felt protective of Japan and watchful over the people.

The United States, on the other hand, boasts several hundred years as an established nation and a go-get-'em mentality. Both are valid and understandable processes of thinking. Instead of labeling the other side as incompetent from our own limited view, the first step is to embrace the difference and work with it. Each culture has its unique strength and beauty that we can learn from when we treat it with respect.


When you approach a Japanese-American business situation with some understanding of how the other side is thinking, things can go much more smoothly. Although the two cultures are much different, when you are clear on what you have to offer the situation, the communication channels will open. Check out my complimentary Leadership Discovery Tool to look at areas where you can hone your leadership skills right away.
Nozomi Morgan, MBA, is a certified Executive Coach and the Founder and President of Michiki Morgan Worldwide LLC. Addition to coaching, she speaks and trains on leadership, career, professional development and cross-cultural business communication.

Visit www.nozomimorgan.com to learn more about Nozomi . There, you can download the free Leadership Discovery Tool. Follow Nozomi on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.